FINLAND: Students: Too old and too slow?

Finland is repeatedly praised for topping secondary education league tables but a recent OECD report was critical of aspects of its universities. The report said higher education students were "insulated from labour market signals by not having to repay the cost of their tuition".

Charging tuition fees to domestic students is not on the current agenda even if the OECD suggests introducing tuition fees would reduce the time university students take to complete their degrees.

Finnish students certainly drag their heels when it comes to completing their studies but the reasons for this are broader than the absence of tuition fees.

The report also highlighted the "ready access to generous in-study benefits" that contributed to insulating students and their choices. The OECD recommended introducing a government loan scheme linking repayment to postgraduate income, to replace government grants and subsidised loans from private banks used by most Finnish students.

This will be very familiar to Australians: income-contingent tuition fees for domestic students were introduced 20 years ago, in the form of HECS - the higher education contribution scheme.

According to data published as part of the Eurostudent project, the average age of new university students is 21.6 years. This is in contrast with students from countries such as France and Italy (and Australia for that matter), in which the great majority of first-year students are younger than 20.

The median age of Finnish graduates is 28, also at the 'old' end of the scale.

Why is it that Finnish university students start their studies later, take longer to progress through them, and are among the oldest in Europe by the time they have been academically prepared for the workforce?

The OECD report criticised universities for the inefficient movement of students from school to university, calling for standardised entry schemes. These criticisms are not novel; the 2009 report that evaluated Finland's innovation system made similar observations about university admissions systems, as did the Economic Survey of Finland, 2008. A recent Ministry of Education working group also went into detail on this subject.

Universities tend to run their own admissions tests and these usually differ between the institutions. The number of applicants sitting admissions tests is three times the size of the matriculation cohort and in 2008, only 29% of new university students matriculated in the same year. Delays of several years can occur as some students apply several times before gaining entry to their preferred programme.

A more recent explanation of why Finland's students take longer to complete than students elsewhere comes from the arrangements for the Bologna agreement. Pre-Bologna, Finnish students typically enrolled in a four-year first degree called a master's degree. Since Bologna, most students have enrolled in a three-year bachelor degree, followed by a two-year masters programme. For many, this means they take a minimum of five years to get into the workforce instead of four.

With hindsight, perhaps it is obvious this would happen. In many education systems, enrolment in a masters degree usually requires completion of a three-year first bachelor degree (often followed by a fourth honours year), and completion of a masters typically requires a further one or two years.

In such systems, the masters degree was never the first degree. But Finnish workplaces do not acknowledge the first (bachelor) degree as meeting the 'barrier to entry' hurdle required to work as a professional in most disciplines.

Although Finnish universities do not charge tuition fees, and even though Finnish student welfare is relatively generous, most students need to work to support themselves. They typically leave home when they go on to tertiary study: only 4% live with their parents, according to Eurostudent.

Most of the rest must pay for their accommodation. In some OECD countries, particularly those in southern Europe, up to three-quarters of students continue to live with their parents during tertiary studies.

The Finnish government welfare for students is relatively generous on the surface. But for many students (especially those in rent-expensive cities such as Helsinki) it provides insufficient funds by way of grants and loans to survive without working as well.

Students support themselves via employment (42% of income is from this source), state welfare and loan schemes (40%) and parents (18%).

Another factor that extends graduation into later years in Finland is the universal conscription requirement for young men, some time between the ages 18 and 28. This seems like an obvious cause of delayed study times but it is rarely mentioned in Finland.

Each year, around 27,000 young men start their national service obligation of six, nine or 12 months. Many will be eventual higher education students.

Conscription intakes can be at the start or mid-year, which is a pity, as the academic year starts in August. Finnish universities have a single intake each year, so the delay in studies for someone opting for 12 months' national service might be as much as two years, depending on their intake date.

What should be done to speed up students' progress into the high-knowledge workforce? In one sense, the answers are simple: break down structural barriers, improve targeted welfare and increase incentives for students' timely completion.

First, admissions could be improved. The Ministry of Education working group report suggests that most students be admitted according to secondary school results, even if supplementary admission processes are required for some programmes.

Applicants should be allowed to apply for several study places and to express their preferences. Applying for several study places in preference order would increase the possibility of being offered a place.

The working group also recommends that first-time applicants should be dealt with as a separate group. For students already in the system, flexible articulation arrangements could be established. Movement between universities ought to be simpler.

Second, there should be incentives for timely completion. Students are eligible for both welfare and low-interest loans, to be repaid after graduation. Students completing in near-minimum time could be rewarded by being 'forgiven' some of their debt.

But student grants would need to be sufficient to cover living costs. Little is served by limiting rent assistance (for instance) to levels below the market rents students must pay. It is also important that grants and loans be subject to realistic indexation.

Third, some efforts could be made to accommodate both Finland's economic and security needs by removing the structural barrier represented by conscription. With not too much effort, it would be possible to integrate the armed forces' requirements with standard intake periods for universities.

The other side of the coin is that universities could consider the introduction of a semester-based system with two intakes each year, a situation common in other parts of the world.

Perhaps tuition fees are inevitable, despite widespread opposition in Finland. If they are introduced, they shouldn't discriminate against the socially disadvantaged, and they should be built into an incentive system.

Neither fees nor absence of financial support during studies should be allowed to extend the length of time it takes to produce a graduate.

* Dr Ian Dobson is Helsinki correspondent for University World News. An Australian scholar often based in Finland, he is editor of the Australian Universities' Review.

* Reports compiled by Jan Petter Myklebust